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Cynicism and the academic market March 25, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, grad school, research, work.
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I recently had someone ask what I was planning to do after I graduated.  I’ve had this question asked of me before.  When I responded, “I’m interested in a tenure track position,” I have, more often than not gotten the “Yeah right.  Let me know how that works out for you” response.  Not in so many words, of course.

This time, however, I responded that I was interested in a TT position, and added that I knew it was highly unlikely.  The reaction to that was, “Not necessarily.”

I was appreciative of the comment because I think, without reading too much into it, it was meant to be encouraging.  However, I still have to stick by my stance that it’s pretty unlikely, mostly because I think it’s not best to be wed to the idea.

The data seems to back me up on this one.  There was a study done on those who make it into TT positions in political science, and the conclusion is that there are very select schools from which everyone is trying to hire.  I don’t have any direct info for my field, but this seems like a reasonable proxy.  The conclusion is that 20% of TT hires come out of a half dozen elite colleges.  And as your school goes down in ranking from there, so do your chances of getting hired.  I’ve also seen numbers, at least for physics, that only 1 in 10 grads finds a TT spot.

Just looking at these numbers makes me think that I would be rather stupid to count on getting a TT spot.  So as much as people may want to be encouraging (and I do appreciate it), it seems like I should try to stay pragmatic and keep in mind that there is life after academia.

How to be condescending when you’re trying not to be February 9, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, family, societal commentary.
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There are few topics more fraught with angst than the mommy wars. A friend recently posted a link to a defensive volley from the stay-at-home mom court.  Supposedly, this response was amazing.

I thought it undermined its own point.

Let’s start with the first paragraph:

It’s happened twice in a week, and they were both women. Anyone ought to have more class than this, but women — especially women — should damn well know better.

The opener disgusted me immediately, and I almost quit reading.  Let’s start with the fact that I agree with his main point: that women who choose one path over another (in this case, motherhood or career) are not necessarily superior to one other.  However, the whole tone of the post was condescending toward women (and men!) and did ultimately end up being judgemental of working women.

But the opener set the tone, and the tone was that women are held to a higher standard than men.  It’s okay for men to say stupid things about stay-at-home mothers (but not parents?), but women somehow have this innate, caring response that ought to be the first thing out of their mouths.

Sorry.  It doesn’t work that way.  I’ve been a SAHM and a working mom.  People’s response to this is always one that comes from their perspective and takes no account of whether you’re doing what you want to or why.  When I wanted to be a SAHM mom, people told me I needed to be supporting my family.  When I didn’t want to be but was, people told me they were so jealous that I got to be at home.  When I was working, people told me I was selfish and needed to pay more attention to my kids.

At all of these points, I was also told by other people that I had made the right choice.  It’s funny how few people ever asked me what I wanted to do or if I was doing it.  The reality is that, in each of these situations, I was doing what needed to be done for the good of my family, and each response had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the perspective of the person speaking those words.

When I find out someone is staying home or working, my response is, “How do you feel about that?”  If they’re enjoying their current situation, a good response is, “Glad it’s working out for you.”  If they’re not, I wish them luck in getting things sorted out so they can be more comfortable.  It’s really not my place to say what’s best for them.

The post that started all this, however, didn’t.  It came down firmly on the side of women needing to be stay at home moms.

Of course not all women can be at home full time. It’s one thing to acknowledge that; it’s quite another to paint it as the ideal. To call it the ideal, is to claim that children IDEALLY would spend LESS time around their mothers. This is madness. Pure madness. It isn’t ideal, and it isn’t neutral. The more time a mother can spend raising her kids, the better. The better for them, the better for their souls, the better for the community, the better for humanity. Period.

No.  It’s not as cut and dried as that.  Some moms really don’t want to be home.  Some moms are better being around other adults: being the sole caretaker for children with no adult interaction makes them depressed or anxious.  (I believe this was covered in the 60s in Friedan’s Feminine Mystique.)  I wouldn’t doubt that having mom home all the time may be advantageous for some kids, but I don’t know that it’s always the best choice for the whole family.

If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

If mom is going nuts staying home with the kids, I seriously doubt that’s the best situation for the kids, either.  Having a depressed or anxious mom who views you as a toddling, diapered impediment to her happiness isn’t good for anything.  What do we tell people to do if they’re unhappy with their job?  Quit and find another because it’s not good to be in a stressful situation.  Obviously, quitting being a parent isn’t an option, but finding time away from parenting certainly is.

The other thing that irritated me about this post was this:

Yes, my wife is JUST a mother. JUST. She JUST brings forth life into the universe, and she JUST shapes and molds and raises those lives. She JUST manages, directs and maintains the workings of the household, while caring for children who JUST rely on her for everything. She JUST teaches our twins how to be human beings, and, as they grow, she will JUST train them in all things, from morals, to manners, to the ABC’s, to hygiene, etc. She is JUST my spiritual foundation and the rock on which our family is built. She is JUST everything to everyone. And society would JUST fall apart at the seams if she, and her fellow moms, failed in any of the tasks I outlined.

Moms don’t need to be SAHMs to do this.  In fact, what’s most irritating about this that you don’t need to be a mom at all: dads do this, too.  This paragraph basically went back on the whole “I respect the choices that other parents make comment” and went ahead and tried to put those SAHMs up on a pedestal…doing exactly the thing to working moms (and ALL dads) that the writer was originally complaining about.  In fact, he even says so.

The people who completely immerse themselves in the tiring, thankless, profoundly important job of raising children ought to be put on a pedestal.

No, I disagree.  Parenting is a tiring, thankless, profoundly important job.  And a lot of people have tiring, thankless, and profoundly important careers, too, although they at least usually get monetary compensation.  Also, many people have jobs where they are greatly appreciated and are not easily replaceable.  Okay, maybe someone who is only looking at your payroll may think so, but chances are that many of your coworkers don’t think that…even if you do get on their nerves.

We get a lot of things wrong in our culture. But, when all is said and done, and our civilization crumbles into ashes, we are going to most regret the way we treated mothers and children.

No, I don’t think that mothers and children will be the only victims.  I think the problem is simply how we treat other people in general.  In general, we tend to be caught up in the “grass is always greener” syndrome without a realistic view of what other people are dealing with.  Most people are really just trying to get through their day and don’t realize that they may be simultaneously in worse and better situations than the next person.

I once was very jealous of a friend because of all the academic honors he had achieved.  He was so accomplished, and I felt like a failure next to him.  One day he told me he felt the same because I had a happy marriage and a wonderful family.  That was the day I realized that we all picked our own paths and had our own priorities.  We always have to give up something to get what we want because no one has infinite time and resources.  We almost always find the path of our lives takes unexpected twists and turns.  And if people could respect and understand that, we’d all be in a better place.  We’re not going to get there, though, by saying we respect all those paths and then telling someone they chose the wrong one.


Fields of irony July 1, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, geology, geophysics, grad school, research, work.
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When I started thinking about what I wanted to do for grad school, I thought geophysics was a good option because I enjoy getting outside.  I figured that if I were doing something related to geology, that opportunity would present itself much more often than in electrical engineering.  I suppose this idea came because I was used to spending most of my time in a 10’x20′ windowless room…or a much bigger windowless lab.  Either way, cabin fever sets in quickly when one is deprived of fresh air and sunshine most of the day.

Unfortunately, I discovered I wasn’t as crazy about ‘outdoor’ geology but fell in love with computationally intensive topics.  I love getting outside and collecting rocks, but I view it more now as a hobby than as a career path.

Recently, however, I’ve been working with some people in another department on a project.  This new project will probably require me to spend some time outside doing field work.  It’s rather ironic that I may end up getting my outside time because of a project I’m doing in electrical engineering.

I guess it all works out in the end.  Now if I could find a way to teach programming outdoors…

Repost: You’re only as washed up as you think you are March 21, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, research, science, work.
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Note: In the course of conversations, I sometimes find myself discussing something that I realize I’ve posted before.  Such was the case with the false notion that scientific honors go only to those who are brilliant in their youth, and so I’m republishing a post from the old blog which addresses this point.

I was listening to a speaker talk about success in grad school. This person said something that has bugged me to this day, particularly since I was 28 at the time. The person sitting next to me was 45…someone who’d worked in industry for over 20 years and decided to get a PhD. Both of us, of course, were parents. He said:

“You want to get through grad school as fast as you can. You want to do your masters in 1 1/2 year, PhD in 3 to 4. You want to do this because you’re young and don’t have families to distract you. Most of the greatest scientists made their great discoveries before they were 25, and you don’t want to be washed up.”

Needless to say, my fellow attendee and I sat slack-jawed after this most definitive pronouncement. We never heard the rest of the talk. We were too stunned to hear anything aside from the fact that were hopeless.

I wonder if this is the whole reason that so many academics feel you can’t succeed unless you put in 80+ hrs./week.

Look at it this way:

1 – The only reason to do science (or engineering) is to win great prizes in your field and endear you to humanity. (You see, you can’t do a job like that simply because you enjoy it. Never mind that most average people have no clue about the majority of Nobel prize winners.)

2 – You must make a brilliant breakthrough early in life to set the tone of your entire career.

3 – If you don’t manage to pull off #2, in order to achieve #1, you will spend the rest of your life chasing after the people who do manage to pull off #2. In that case, you must spend every waking minute focusing on your career and everything else is a distraction. (See FSP’s post on monomania, as well as the follow-up on Women in Science).

All I can say is, “Dudes, get over yourselves.

If you check out this paper (sorry about it being locked, but the NDSU library was nice enough to let me see it), there’s a lot of info that says how whacked out this view is.

It does some nice statistical analysis of Nobel Prize Winners in Physics for the period 1901-2000. Keep in mind that, unlike many professional society awards (the highest of which are usually given for career achievements), the Nobel Prize is a one shot deal. You may be a bright and highly productive person, but unless you make the one great discovery being considered most important to humanity, you aren’t eligible.

It says that Nobel prize winners, at the time of their great discovery, ranged in age from 22 to 64. The average age of the physicist at the time of discovery is 37.4 years with a standard deviation of 8.1 years. (That means that about 2/3 of the people make their discoveries between the ages of 29ish and 45ish.) On average, they get their awards 15 years after their discovery…but the range was 1 year to 53 years later. They did say that the trend seemed to be moving toward the laureates being older when they received their awards.

So the most compelling reason I can see to try to make that prize-winning discovery before you’re 25 is so that you aren’t awarded the damned thing post-humously!

(Keep in mind that your chances of actually winning something like the Nobel prize are probably not quite as bad as winning a lottery, but the chances still aren’t all that great. The max they can award is 30 per decade.)

As a counter to the three “thought points” above, I think these make more sense:

1 – Your best discoveries can happen any time between the time you initially become brilliant at something to when you’ve been brilliant at it for decades. If you are going to win a Nobel, chances are you’ll probably have been at it between one and two decades.

2 – A researcher with a good work ethic who has the time to enjoy his or her life may be less prone to burnout and may actually be able to accomplish something later in life. How many profs get tenure, take a sigh of relief, and just sit there because they’ve had the life sucked out of them as a grad student and assistant prof?

3 – You don’t have to spend the rest of your life playing catch up. Richard Hamming actually suggested that you change (sub)fields every 7-10 years so that your ideas don’t get stale. I’ve often wondered if having a very diverse background (which can take a while to accumulate) may in fact serve the purpose of coming at new fields with fresh ideas…rather than taking the single-minded, monomania approach that seems to be so often revered in science. Maybe, possibly, that approach is more suited to beating a dead horse. (Not always, of course.)

If you’d like more examples of how not to be washed up, I suggest reading R.W.P. King’s Obit. Pay close attention to this paragraph:

His scientific contributions were prodigious. He was the author of 12 books, many of them treatises; many book and encyclopedia chapters; and more than 300 journal papers. Most amazing, he never seemed to slow down. He published his latest book at age 97 and published his latest journal paper at age 98. He received numerous honors. King was a Life Fellow of IEEE and a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

If I win the Nobel prize, I want my discovery to happen when I’m older than 37.4 years. That way, when I do it, I’ll be above average…even for a Nobel prize winner. But in all honesty, I think I’d prefer to still be publishing papers when I’m 98.

You ought to… February 15, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, grad school.
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I was discussing some of my career aspirations the other day.  After talking a bit, the person I was talking to lifted their index finger in that way people do when they’re trying to be thoughtful.

“You know, you really ought to get a job at a community college.”

I was floored.  The person realizes that despite the fact I could have stayed here and finished my PhD in just a couple years, I chose to go someplace else and spend two years apart from my family because I didn’t want the stigma of “only been at one school”.  Why would I do that if I wanted to teach at a community college?  In fact, why would I go get a PhD at all? I could start teaching at a CC after finishing my MS and not put myself through all that.

I’m not saying this as a slight to community college teachers, either.  I went to a community college for a couple years and had some of the most awesome teachers I’d ever met there.  It’s just that 1 – it’s not really where I want to go and 2 – I don’t think I could handle it.  Given the choice between research or technical work and teaching general ed-type classes, I’m pretty sure research would win out.  I’ve learned that I can live without spending hours in front of students or grading papers, but I can’t live without the mental stimulation that doing technical work provides.  Further, I’ve had the opportunity to teach in high schools as well as general ed labs for non-science majors.  I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I like teaching labs for circuits, optics, and physics.  I love teaching, but I’ve also learned that the material I like to teach is not suited for just an average student.  I like math and theory, and most community colleges are not going to be offering the kinds of things I would love to teach, at least not at a high level.

Now realistically, if that was the only job available, I’d take it and try to be a totally kick ass teacher that makes their students want to be great scientists and engineers…or whatever else they want to be.  I just am not convinced that’s a good first career choice for me.

Anyway, this whole interaction was very disappointing because it left me feeling that this person either has little faith in me or really doesn’t understand my interests well at all.  I do realize they had no intention of making me feel bad, but I still felt slighted.  It was all the more disappointing given that this person, in the past, has been very encouraging of my career goals.

My brush with the mommy wars January 2, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, family, homeschooling, personal, societal commentary.
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Parenting has created a whole set of experiences for me that have left me feeling ‘in between’. The primary situation is being caught between the stay-at-home moms and the working moms, aka the mommy wars. I have been half-and-half most of the time, a position not appreciated by either camp: going to school and working part-time while homeschooling the older boy. My working mom friends either didn’t really understand why I needed to homeschool (although I don’t recall them having the same level of difficulty integrating their kids into public school) or were jealous that I was home with my kids so much. The SAHM crowd thought I should just quit school to be full-time with my pride and joy. I really got the feeling that either I needed to be like them so reinforce that their position was right or that they were jealous that I was able to straddle the fence when they would’ve preferred to jump it.

I could never clearly articulate to either group (or they didn’t want to hear) that while I love my kids and want to make sure they get a good start in life (and the public school wasn’t doing that for the older one), I was actually very frustrated with my inability to continue with my education. I viewed it as a temporary measure until I could make sure that the older one was able to get on his feet (and while we are still homeschooling now, he is largely responsible for his own classwork and doesn’t need my constant direction). I was not going to quit my education because I felt like I really had a lot of interests outside of raising kids, and I didn’t want to give them up.

A couple people looked at me like I’d sprouted two heads. Who could be selfish enough to put their own education before their kids?

I came across this article, which explains what it felt like to me:

In my private psychotherapy practice and in my personal life, I have known many gifted women who seem to possess what I refer to as the “rage to achieve.”

They are constantly driven to learn, to create and to be intellectually productive even while raising young children.

What distinguishes these women from their ambitious counterparts is that their motivation is not financial security, accolades or professional visibility; but their love for the process of learning, creating and involvement in a field or arena that holds deep interest and fascination for them.

Many of these women face periods of frustration when the demands of family and their need for intellectual immersion collides.

The whole time I was staying at home with my kid (and sometimes kids because the younger one had some periods of separation anxiety so intense and inconsolable that he was kicked out of daycare for a time), I was extremely frustrated. I wanted so badly to be working on my education and pursuing my interests. I tried using other hobbies to fill the gap, but they didn’t satisfy me the same way taking classes and working on intellectual pursuits did. And even when things were really rough in grad school, giving up was never an option. Although I thought many times about how much less stress it would be, I knew I would be very miserable if I weren’t able to continue on my desire career path.

Enjoying your job August 15, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in career.
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FrauTech made a post a few days ago about career satisfaction:

Yes there are a lot of “boring” office jobs out there, but very often you can find your own satisfaction in that job. And your job does not define you. It’s never going to be perfect.

I don’t mean to suggest we should all be hedonists, just that we’re all in control (somewhat) over our own lives. We have the ability to change how we react to things and change our expectations. Maybe our expectations for our careers are just too high these days.

About the same time, I read this excerpt at Tough Guide to Work:

Our career and jobs become an integral part of our identity. Researchers have uncovered “a significant and positive relationship between occupational prestige and happiness”. Or put another way “people love boring other people about their work”. When you think about it this makes sense. We know that on the flip side: unemployment hits people really hard. People often sink lower and take longer to recover after losing a job than when their spouse dies.

Personal opinion is that it is, of course, somewhere in the middle. I had no idea that being a scientist was regarded a high prestige job. And really, when you’re in the middle of the experiment and it’s not working, do you really give a damn?

I have had a lot of jobs over the years. I think the only one I truly hated was working at Burger King. I actually found a lot of enjoyment or at least tried to focus on the various positive aspects of the other jobs. I was a police dispatcher at the university, where I got a lot of time to read and study. (I also got in trouble when I ran out of reading material and took a whole bowl of paperclips and chained them together.) I worked as a secretary at a juvenile detention center where I made the mistake of streamlining my job and computerizing all the documents. I basically was able to easily finish my work in four hours a day and really enjoyed the challenge of doing things more efficiently and neatly. (Unfortunately, it caused a lot of other problems and office politics.)

The worst was a job where I was hired by the some higher ups in a company to do some consulting work. The problem was that the people lower down really took what I was doing as a threat to them personally and made my life miserable. I really hated going in there. After a few months, however, I realized that some of the questions that I was supposed to answer needed more constraints. I spent about three months developing and running experiments to provide those constraints and apply it to the data I’d already taken. The point where I got to develop my own experiments and answer questions completely turned the job around and made it extremely exciting.

I have learned that I do a particular type of work best, and I am happiest when I am doing that. I get excited talking about it to strangers, and I think they find it interesting (or are at least polite enough to listen). But even when I’m doing something I don’t enjoy, I have found that there is at least one part of it that keeps me going and interested. I have also found that learning new things and frequent change helps to keep me motivated.

So what keeps you going at your job? How much of it do you love and how much do you tolerate?


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